Designer Kara Johnson (left)
The embodiment of ease, infused with an uncontrived yet refined feeling. Driven by the attitude that life should be embraced and enjoyed without boundaries, and that it should be lead with intention. Breathing simplicity, appreciating authenticity, honing quality and versatility, encouraging local production, and inspiring a deeper meaning. Kara Thoms is for the woman who wears what expresses her style, but also what represents her values.
When, in our interview, Kara Johnson used the phrase “something old and something new” to capture the essence of her brand in words, I thought, yes, this is it. Because isn’t this what we are looking for in that new piece of clothing we purchase with the intention of keeping it forever? A soft, ultra-comfortable feel of a much loved favourite, something to weave your own story onto. It’s like when youth and adventure meet experience and a well-lived life. Kara Thoms seems to meet the best of both worlds.
But what has probably sealed my full admiration and appreciation for Kara Thoms, the woman and the brand, is Kara’s philosophy’s of working for yourself/being a mum. And, indeed, this is a brand that inherently projects the image of a beautiful, natural, talented and brave woman, one who weaves her life around family and passion work. Read on for my full interview with the designer, who talked to me about growing tired of fashion trends while modeling and challenging herself to design her first collection (while she was pregnant), about staying true to yourself and remaining positive no matter what, and about the future of the fashion industry.
Kara, why a fashion brand? Why not something else? What drove you to fashion in the first place?
I’ve just always loved clothes. My mother sewed all my clothes when I was younger, living in New Zealand. We would pick out fabrics and patterns at the material store and I’d watch her put it all together. Each piece was one-of-a-kind. I feel this is what planted the seed in me.
I’ve always been that girl who had quite a collection of clothes. I lived in a lot of different places around the world while modeling (17 years) and would get inspired by the surroundings, whether it be a city, people, or some open landscape, and I’d buy the hidden gems. I’ve always had a tailor so I could alter the clothes I bought – always changing up the designs, making them more flattering, shorter, a tuck here, a tuck there. I eventually felt unfulfilled with my modeling career. I wanted to take a leap of faith and challenge myself. So, I designed my first collection when I got pregnant a few years ago. But, first and foremost, I love being a mom. If I can work for myself and not have to leave my little girl, that’s the most important thing to me.
What are the core values of Kara Thoms?
Something old and something new. My designs have this old-world feel and quality but with a modern twist. Personally, I love wearing things that bare a hint of nostalgia. I use linen and linen blends which add a more clean and understated aspect to my vintage inspired designs. I do small batch quantities and everything is sewn by small, family-run artisan businesses. All the dying is done by hand with non-toxic mineral dyes.
Who do you design for? Is there a particular type of woman you design for?
I design clothes that I want to wear. It’s essentially a resort line for that woman who loves to travel. I like the idea that all the pieces can be worn at a variety of occasions for that classic, understated look. Kara Thoms is probably best described as ‘prairie chic’.
From reading the story behind your brand, it’s clear that your mother was a huge influence. Who and what else inspires you?
I’ve always been inspired by the ‘Nana’, you know, when you see that sweet, old lady on the streets of New York dressed in a complete outfit she’s had since 1940? The matching shoes, dress stockings, and hat… When I’m back home in New Zealand I see a lot of ladies wearing their old, homemade house dresses – just classic.
I love old movies and movie stars like Grace Kelly, and westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I love simplicity and quality. Over the years I have become more drawn to minimalism. Not to say I don’t consume. I just try to consume less.
Your clothing line is produced by a small family-run business handpicked by you on a trip to visit your brother in Bali. What are the perks and challenges of an ethically produced fashion brand on the island of Bali?
I love the people I am working with in Bali. They are so talented and hard working. I like the fact that my clothes are not made in a factory but by these small, family run businesses; tailors to sew and artisans that are dying the fabrics by hand, trying to match my color choices. Sometimes they get it so wrong and sometimes the colors are better than I expected. It’s also a fun place to visit, like I’m on some sort of adventure. I’ve always loved traveling and different cultures.
The main setbacks are the time differences, the language barrier, and the amount of holidays they have – there’s a lot! But it’s all worth it.
You started your career as a model and then grew tired of trends, which is what lead you to start your own clothing business. How do you see the future of fashion? Because so many of the people I admire and who I come in contact with prefer mindful shopping and meaningful brands, such like yours.
My hope is that the fashion industry, as a whole, becomes more mindful. We live in a world of such excess and the worst part is the effect that has on the natural environment. I believe there is a draw to ethically produced brands. It’s like supporting your local farms and buying organic food. I’d rather spend more money on something I know is high quality, ethically produced and not mass-produced. Unfortunately, there are always going to be those people that don’t care and would rather not spend the money.
You’ve been working in fashion for many years. Are there any fashion designers you look up to? How about favorite photographers?
When I was younger, I used to love Karen Walker, being a fellow kiwi. Her designs were really vintage inspired back then. She used lots of beautiful colors. I was also a big fan of Chloé and Marc Jacobs for the same reasons.
I definitely went through an 80’s resurrection period in New York back, in 2003, which was hilarious, and a moment of hippie while living in Topanga canyon in 2008. But asides from these times of fashion gone rogue, I’ve always stayed pretty true to my style.
My current fashion loves are Isabel Marant, Zimmermann, Rachel Comey, Jesse Kamm, Ulla Johnson and I’m always inspired by pretty Valentino gowns.
My favorite photographers are Lauren Ross (who shot my entire website), Will Adler and my husband, Jeff Johnson.
A life lesson modeling has taught you:
I feel as though there have been many life lessons along my career path, especially with all that lonesome travel, living in foreign lands, understanding different cultures, the people, the language, making a home of it. Lots of self discovery. I think you need to be very self-sufficient and somewhat courageous to navigate it all. It helps if you don’t compare yourself to others.
One really positive lesson I have learned through modeling was learning to ride out the highs and slows, believing there would always be consistent work flowing in and trying to not go to that place of feeling stressed out or desperate. As long as you’re looking after yourself and radiating from within with positivity, trusting that it’s all going to be great, the universe always seems to come through. It’s almost like this mental, spiritual dance.
How much talent, how much hard work and how much luck would you say that are involved in a successful fashion brand?
I think the key is to have a clear vision for your designs and style, and always evolve.
It takes lots of time, blood, sweat and tears. If you’re lucky enough to gather the right people around and create a dream team, you’re half way there.
What advice would you give someone with their own idea or dream?
Take small steps, and lots of positive affirmations.
What does style mean to you?
Tapping into the creative brain, self expression, not following the mainstream, but molding the ideas that are out there to create your own thing. You actually have to care enough about style to have any and, in some cases, being courageous in your approach.
Has your working in fashion influenced your personal wardrobe?
It’s funny, up until moving to the USA I would say it influenced my style in a really positive way. Living in New York was so incredibly inspiring, but my agency would tell me not to wear my vintage dresses and boots to castings. They wanted me to wear a plain white tank and a jean skirt, which I thought was totally boring. I also had to blow out my hair everyday! They said it was because my look was more commercial and it wasn’t in my best interests to look like I had just stepped out of an editorial shoot. So I always had my ‘work clothes’ and my ME clothes.
What are your ME clothes? What do you feel your best dressed in?
One of my own designs.
You are now living in California. How has your moving there influenced you creatively?
I feel like I’m surrounded by a great, creative energy. People here are creating and doing really unique things. They are driven and excited – that, in itself, has influenced me.
What is your one favourite thing to do in California and which you would miss if you lived anywhere else in the world?
California is where the sun is always shining. I love to be outside, road trips, camping out at the beach, or in the eastern Sierra around Yosemite with my hubby and our little girl and our dog. I would really miss that.
One thing you can not start the day without:
Cuddles with my little girl.
Where would we find you when not working?
At the beach.
Latest book you’ve read/ latest film you’ve watched / latest song you’ve been listening to on repeat:
Film – 10 (1979)
Book – African Saga, by Mirelli Ricciardi
Song – Shady Grove, by Taj Mahal
You wish people appreciated more:
Our natural environment.
What makes you happy at the end of the day?
Family story time together.
photo credit: Lauren Ross